A Midsummer Night’s Dream
“Hippolyta and Titania are consorts who defy their Lords, but ultimately submit to their lordship”. Examine how Shakespeare treats the female characters and explores the role of women in the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is said to be written between 1594 and 1596. It is also thought it was written around the period ‘Romeo & Juliet’. Similarities between the two do occur between the plays, for example the play of ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ which is performed by Peter Quince’s men has the same tragic ending as ‘Romeo & Juliet’.
William Shakespeare at this time was the play writer for Elizabeth I . Shakespeare therefore gave the female characters in his plays, some sort of power. By doing this Shakespeare could not irritate the Queen by creating a play which was based on male characters. During the time of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign, there were religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants. The Queen tried to treat the two religions equally and by encouraging them to live in peace. (1).
Despite her attempts to bring about peace within the religious community, she was ruling a country torn apart by religious tensions. Also during the time of Queen Elizabeth’s life was in danger, her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots wanted to have her killed. Fortunately for Queen Elizabeth, her cousins’ plot was uncovered and she was tried and sentenced to death in 1597. ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, would therefore have provided amusement entertainment for the Queen allowing her to forget about the religious problems that had personal problems that had recently occurred.
The women in the play show their boldness and try not to get dragged into the patriarchal (A man who rules a family, clan, or tribe)(2) society’s way of life by trying to challenge their Lords, but in the most likely situations, the women end up having to give in to the males who dominate society. Tricia Rich, a critic, writes: “Feminist criticism states that, often, men do not know where women are coming from.
Therefore in writing a text or reading it, they forget that there is another important side to society and typically write from the perspective of a patriarchal view of the world where men rule, make decisions, hold important opinions and basically are society as a whole”(3) Rich is basically saying that Shakespeare tried giving women a powerful role in the play to please Queen Elizabeth, but he also took that power away from them as well.
Critics say that he may have been because he also held the patriarchal view that women needed to be ruled or Shakespeare may simply have been trying to make the point that no matter how hard women try, they will never be able to gain power over the men and be the leaders of society. Hippolyta and Theseus play a minor role in the play. She was an Amazon warrior queen before Theseus defeated her in battle, also winning her heart. This is shown in the lines: “Hippolyta, I wooed thee with my sword, And won thy love doing thee injuries”. (Act 1 Scene 1).
This is another example of men overpowering women and using their strength to show women that they aren’t as powerful as they would like to be. Hippolyta serves mainly as the female voice in the Athenian palace but does little to move the plot forward. Titania, Queen of the Fairies and also wife of Oberon, was one of the stronger females of the play. She was the main reason why the whole orders of the lives’ of the Athenian lovers were thrown into chaos. If only Titania given up her Indian boy, then Puck would not have had any reason to wreak havoc on the lovers by casting the love spells in the wrong persons’ eyes.
Puck was only following orders from Oberon who simply wanted to simply maintain his power no matter who was hurt or humiliated in the process. In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, every female bond is broken leading to humility and obedience. Titania in the end loses the Indian boy who was the son of a woman who she deeply cared about and Hippolyta has lost her Amazon culture to live in a male dominated society. As soon as these bonds have been broken, the women in the play simply appear to lose their spirit, and also they lose their fighting spirit.
At the beginning of the play, there is a very strong sense of self-confidence amongst the women. They know what they want and fight to keep it. Titania wants to keep the Indian boy, despite Oberon’s objections and orders to get rid of the boy. There is an open power struggle between the couple shown in the line: “Tarry, rash wanton! Am not I thy lord? ” (Act 2 Scene 1). Oberon tries to remind Titania that he is the master and that she ought to respect his wishes and do as she is told. He thinks that because he is the King, no one, even his wife has a right to defy him.
Titania answers Oberon with the line: “Then I must be thy lady”. (Act 2 Scene 1). Her reply is somewhat sarcastic and ridicules the patriarchal view of the way that women are treated. On the other hand, Hippolyta loses her status as a powerful Amazon queen because Theseus ‘wins her’ in a fight so she now belongs to him. She is now Theseus’ possession and has to agree or go along with whatever he says. However, Titania refuses to be dominated by Oberon, leading to disastrous consequences.
By the end of the play, Titania is no longer demanding to what she wants, but she gives in to possess a happy marriage and order in the natural world, Because Titania disobeys Oberon, he subjects her to humiliation by getting Puck to cast a spell on her which makes her fall in love with Bottom who has an ass’s head. The nature of this spell seems to indicate that women are rather foolish in falling in love as they usually fall in love with people who have ‘ugly’ personalities and cannot see beyond the persons’ outer self. The spell distracts Titania giving Oberon a chance to get rid of the Indian boy.
Once the society is again dominated by men and the women are rebellious, the world is back in order and everyone appears to be happy. In Louise Adrian Montrose’s article: “Shaping Fantasies: Figurations of Gender and Power in Elizabethan Culture” (4), she goes into the idea of women who have lost their sense of self and therefore have been dominated. She speaks very much on the idea of Hippolyta and her loss of culture and therefore of self. It seems strange that not once in the course of the play does Hippolyta ever seem dissatisfied with her new position in the male dominated society.
Psychoanalysts argue that this may be because when Hippolyta was a warrior queen, she was neither woman nor man. After she is defeated by Theseus and being put in a completely different role as a wife, she is also assigned the role of a ‘real’ woman. Her removal from the Amazons is the first broken bond between the women in the play although the readers do not witness it. Shakespeare treats the female characters in a patriarchal way, giving Titania and Hippolyta few chances to use their strengths and strong personalities to stick to their principles and beliefs.
The role of the women is undermined as they eventually lose their power and give in to their respective male partners. The play is a statement of Shakespeare and society’s ideas and ideals of how women ought to act and be treated. The relationships of the women are important to the ultimate ending. The world is in chaos while the women run free, when they are dominated again, the natural order is restored in the world. Hippolyta loses her entire culture in the Amazons but gains another dominated by men.
Titania loses her connection with her friend who has died, but after they have been forced into obedience, they have no voice to complain, they have no desire to continue fighting for what they believe is right. In the end, the only way they are allowed some power, is through their partners’ status’ of Duke of Athens and King of Fairies. The women become passive, finally allowing the men to rule the world in peace. Although the play was written as a comedy, it could be argued that this perception is a external analysis of the play, as the hidden meanings concerned with the gender issues are far from humorous.
The play deals with the issues surrounding patriarchy and female scarcity which is evident throughout the play. Shakespeare even introduces the theme in the opening scene when Theseus boasts about having beaten Hippolyta in a fight. The fact that Hippolyta was a warrior Queen would inform readers that the Amazonians lived in a matriarchal (A woman who rules a family, clan, or tribe. )(5) Society. By injuring Hippolyta, he tries to take control over her so that she can be kept away from experiencing an equal amount of power to men. This reveals that Theseus has a concern towards powerful women.
He destroyed the matriarchal society Hippolyta was ruling because of his patriarchal views. In the end he brought her into a patriarchal society whereby women had to abide by the law that men had created. It could be disputed that Shakespeare may possibly have had his own agenda by introducing this theme so early on in the play. The Elizabethan theatre consisted of two main types of audience, the higher class and the bourgeoisie (The middle class. )(6) It may be that Shakespeare assumed that the majority of the working class would not understand the hidden meaning of the play and perceive it as simply a comedy.
However, the more educated intellects would understand the true issues portrayed in the play and not just the visible thought. There is also the issue of absent mothers. It is apparent that the status of the mother has been removed from the play, there are only fathers or male figures. Men are taking away the importance of motherhood from the females in early modern England which is represented in the play. When Titania brings up the Indian boy, Oberon takes him away, by having Puck place a love potion on her so that her attention is diverted from fostering the boy.
There is a cultural change from matriarchy to patriarchy where Titania’s right to be a mother has been taken away by a man. Overall, ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ can be argued to be a representation of patriarchy in early modern England. The male characters are overtly concerned about their position in society concerning gender stereotypical roles. As a means of controlling their insecurities, they do everything they can to make sure that their female partners will not be able to defy them even if humiliation and degradation of their are the only ways to help them stay in power.